01 June 2014

On Set Books

It's unlikely that you have been able to avoid the arguments now simmering around changes to the syllabus and set books for GCSE English Literature.

Here is part of a post I first wrote in 2012, which touches on some of the issue from another angle:
I passed the local branch of a chain bookshop on Saturday, now featuring the "back to school" window display. Prominent was a "study guide" to To Kill a Mockingbird --presumably a set text again for some exam or another.

Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, is 86 and reclusive. I wasn't surprised to see a "study guide" in the window, but it did set me thinking about what had been made of her wonderful story, whose very accessibility and gentle power has conspired to its reduction to a commodity--knowledge about it can be traded for exam credits, while the point is lost.

I'm not merely speculating here. Robert Westall was my art teacher at school. We became friends and remained so for thirty years until his death. [...]. As the link shows, he was a wonderful author of stories for children and young adults, acquiring many awards for works from his debut novel The Machine-Gunners in 1975 to posthumous publications. The Machine-Gunners was serialised on BBCtv in 1983 --and of course found its way to being a "set book" for 16+ examinations...

I don't remember when it was first set, or when the first cribs came out (for examples of current stuff go here and scroll until you get to the title--I make no comment at all on the quality of the resources offered. They are simply an accessible example of the kind of material on offer.) But I do remember discussing it with him.

I congratulated him. He'd really made it! And—since he was always something of a contrarian—I didn't really take it seriously when he said he wished it hadn't happened, and that perhaps he had a right to be consulted about it. (As far as I can remember, the first he found out about it was from his publisher or his agent, because they had been warned to increase print runs and approached about annotated editions. But then, most set authors are dead already, so...)

But his argument was persuasive. He did not want young people to see his work as "the kind of stuff they made you read at school." Once they saw it in that light, he would have lost them.

And of course he was right.
Of course it's just possible that Gove is really a big fan of Harper Lee and John Steinbeck, and trying a kind of paradoxical injunction*. By removing them from the required list—forbidding and banning them, he may be making them transgressive and thus all the more attractive to adolescents...

* Introduced in Watzlawick P, Beavin J and Jackson D (1967) Pragmatics of Human Communication New York; W W Norton.

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